Smart Cities ¿Coming to Chile?

Smart Cities are not a new concept used to describe urban areas that use state-of-the-art technology to provide, in an efficient and sustainable environment, multiple services and wellbeing to citizens. For more than 20 years it has been discussed in areas such as architecture, research, and information and communication technologies.

For experts, in starting up this type of technological platform –which brings together elements of energy efficiency and urban planning- the role of information and communication technology (ICT) is fundamental. The reason is concrete: ICT has allowed societies to be increasingly connected through services that aim to raise people’s living standards, and can increase competitiveness, make public administration processes more efficient; increase economic growth capacity, optimize timings, decentralize functions, improve flows, increase the trustworthiness and availability of information, facilitate purchases and payments, and generate increased levels of information.

In practical terms, a smart city can be understood as a city model that, with 100% hi-tech support, has strategic axes such as urban mobility –safe and efficient transport systems and infrastructure-, energy efficiency and, in general, sustainable resource management. Different projects implemented in different countries more or less fit these three axes.

Considering what these axes are, traffic congestion is a major mobility obstacle whose effects are clear and even measurable: worsening air quality and lower productivity. In this field, the technological solutions that smart cities offer are aimed, for instance, at traffic light timing, signposting, and giving drivers real-time traffic information.

Smart cities are an answer to the need to include urban resources in one structural frame in order to have integrated systems on the streets, allowing for better service and greater environmental protection. This stems from the world’s explosive urban development requiring cities to automate their processes, save time and have an efficient and timely public administration.

On the growing urban population, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs data is revealing: over 50% of the world’s population live in mega-cities now, a figure that is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.

Smart city projects have no choice but to incorporate technological infrastructure -information networks-, energy strategy –including renewables and systems of energy storage and synergies-, resource management and protection, service supply and government participation –the implementation of sustainable policies that benefit whole communities and not just specific groups-.

Some of the most used ICT tools are smart cards for accessing urban services, Wi-Fi connection points, real-time traffic data, and sensors that collect information on streetlights and environmental control for example.

Francisco Díaz, an architecture graduate from Universidad Católica who also has a Masters’ from Columbia University, is critical of smart cities, for not connecting ICT use with defined objectives that improve living standards. “It’s essential that their objective is the promotion of ‘smart citizens’; that technology is used to make the access to city information more egalitarian so that a more empowered society can be generated, with the power to make better decisions,” he says.

According to Díaz, the smart city concept should be understood as that city where the social and physical capital –infrastructure in place- is assessed with the same importance as economic capital.

“That balance between citizenship, environment and development is also the foundation for urban sustainability not to be just a cliché,” warns Díaz.

On the other hand, Jonathan Barton, director of the sustainable urban development center Centro de Desarrollo Urbano Sustentable (CEDEUS), linked to Universidad Católica and Universidad de Concepción, says that “impacts are important, because they are expected to facilitate an improvement in our transport system use and to reduce the amount of trips to do certain processes. Also, they allow the use of Internet to provide information in order to improve our understanding and use of the city in real time.”

For Alejandra Labarca, executive director of Smart Cities Chile, a smart city improves the management of services a city has to give to its inhabitants: health care, safety, transport, energy, connectivity, government and environment, for example. Labarca says there is a key factor whose importance can’t be understated: education. “To reach and improve the different aspects of a city, the use of technology is needed, as is teaching citizens so that they are key actors in this process of cities’ conversion,” she says.

The Pioneers

Worldwide, the introduction of technologies to make cities more intelligent has taken shape and different initiatives have been in place for years with considerable success. Cases vary: in San Francisco (USA), for instance, water pipes were set up with sensors informing their operators which sectors have leaks. There is also Google Maps, a technological solution that tracks traffic conditions and, in practice, helps the user to make movement decisions.

In New York meanwhile, an interactive platform is used, which -through screens installed all over the city- informs about news and events. In the same city, together with IBM, the Business Analytics Solution was launched, a services center that finds ways of helping businesses and governments to use analysis technologies to better understand market conditions.

In Tokyo there is an early warning service for users to prepare in case of an earthquake. The information is sent to clients by mobile operators, who dispatch text messages using a technology known as “cell broadcast,” that delivers messages in a similar way to how television or radio signals are broadcast.

In Xinjiang (China) authorities can see the unemployment rate in real time through chips installed in the population’s social security cards.

There are also a number of initiatives in Europe. In Paris, Autolib put an end to noise and pollution. The idea is that a Parisian chooses a destination inside the city and reserves an electric vehicle to get there, and without having to return the car to the start point leaves it at the destination for another user to take. The service can be accessed using apps for iOS and Android cell phones. In Spain, 12,000 sensors were installed in roads to measure anything from air pollution to parking availability, even notifying garbage collectors where collections have not been made. The same sensors turn off streetlights when there is no movement, and turn them on when there is.

The missing forward look

In general, the world’s smart cities have had state guidance, through strategic public policy and financial resources. But in Chile’s case, there is no state policy that promotes smart cities, and instead there are isolated initiatives that the private sector promotes from time to time. As Alejandra Labarca describes, “There has been little progress, but there is some progress. It has been in very specific business projects that meet concrete needs [and are] satisfied by specific vendors.”

Carlos Busso, president of the Chilean Association of Information Technology (ACTI), agrees on the need for a global policy. “How do you do get unified action in a country whose every city is extremely fragmented in neighborhoods? That is difficult to achieve, because a smart city has to be the whole city, it cannot be just one neighborhood that has one initiative. We still are a long way away. An initiative that unifies, going beyond neighborhood distinctions, starts to make sense,” he emphasizes.

What is Chile doing in this respect? According to Jonathan Barton, the most generalized examples are internet usage in public places (free availability). “The [public transport system] BIP card, which facilitates a continuous improvement of the Metro and other surface transport systems, through each passenger details and also the group. This kind of information is vital to adjust systems instantly, to plan and to invest in the medium- to long-term”. There is also “the system that delivers information about bus travel times. Besides that there are apps (for mobile devices) that help make online purchases or utility payments by Internet”.

On Chile’s challenges in terms of smart city implementation, according to Alejandra Labarca, “It is necessary to combine public and private efforts in an interdisciplinary and comprehensive way that allows, on one hand, to deal with the typical challenges of Chile’s cities and, on the other, to strengthen public policies aimed at improving the country’s connectivity services in terms of transport and communications.” “If the State does not play an important role, gaps to be opened between our society and the more developed ones are going to be even bigger,” she adds.

Jonathan Barton meanwhile adds, “We have to ensure more -and more equal- access and use of technologies. The danger might be the increase of the digital gap, depending on the 3G and 4G (cell phone) subscription costs. As a general and urban public policy goal it is necessary to address this risk of widening urban inequity through smart cities”.

What’s sure is that different smart cities projects implemented in the world are going to gradually grow depending on the population’s increasingly needs. In Chile’s specific case, it is clear what the challenge is: to build smart cities that cover significant numbers of citizens -not small groups- because smart cities are conceived as an urban development that meets the needs of inhabitants, businesses and institutions. In order to do that, they have a platform that integrates services and guarantees quality, innovation and sustainability.

The Chilean project: SmartCity Santiago

One of the pioneer projects is Smartcity Santiago, implemented in 2013 by Chilectra in the Ciudad Empresarial business park. It is an experimental lab that brings together several electric mobility projects, such as intelligent meters with two-way communication –clients can manage their consumption more efficiently-; remote controlled electric infrastructure; home automation departments; solar water heating; electronic data signs with programmable messages in bus stops; LED streetlights that give better quality lighting and lower energy consumption; decorative lighting in green areas, and free access public Wi-Fi and broadband for cell phones.